Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Paul Cartledge, After Thermopylae: The Oath of Plataea and the End of the Graeco-Persian Wars. Emblems of Antiquity. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xxx, 203. ISBN 9780199747320. $24.95.

Reviewed by Matthew P. Maher, University of Winnipeg (ma.maher@uwinnipeg.ca)

Version at BMCR home site


Unfortunately, and as Paul Cartledge correctly points out, although arguably more decisive than Marathon, Thermopylae, or Salamis, the Battle of Plataea has "been unjustly forgotten to a greater or lesser extent" (p. 8); indeed, sadly it has been relegated to the "register of long oblivion" (p. xii). Clearly then, one of the motivations behind this book is the author's attempt to properly recognize the importance of the Battle of Plataea "as a key and pivotal moment not just in ancient or classical Greek history, but in all Western history" (pp. xii-xiii). More specifically, however, "the main point of the book…is to try to identify and to explain the function(s) the Oath of Plataea was designed to serve in its immediate monumental context" (p. 30). Thus, Cartledge's book comprises an investigation into the wider context, significance, and the question of historical memory surrounding the Battle of Plataea and the (in)famous eponymous Oath, including the reception of both in antiquity through later times.

After outlining the motivations behind the book in the Preface (pp. xi-xv), in Chapter 1 (pp. 3-11), Cartledge, reasonably enough, begins with a brief discussion about our primary source of evidence and its original context; i.e., the marble stele from a shrine in Attica (deme of Acharnae), on which the Oath of Plataea is actually preserved. While Cartledge has no reservations that this stele itself is authentic (created ca. 350-325 BCE), he doubts that this was the oath actually sworn by the Greeks before the battle of Plataea in the summer of 479 BCE (a conviction explored in the subsequent chapter). The author then proceeds to outline the main subjects and themes that will appear in each of the book's chapters, which, when taken together, aim to provide "a deeply contextualized history of the crucially important but too often neglected Battle of Plataea and to offer a rich portrait of the ancient Greeks' cultural ethos during one of the most critical periods in all ancient (not just ancient Greek) history and its subsequent reception" (p. 11).

Chapter 2 (pp. 12-40) is one of the most important chapters in the book, in which the author examines the Oath as preserved on the Acharnae stele. Cartledge discusses the "when, where, how, and by whom the stele was erected" ultimately in an effort to determine the proper context(s) "within which it should be read – literally as well as metaphorically – by us" (p. 14). After a translation and detailed commentary of the stele's inscription, the question of the inscription's authenticity is addressed by comparing its content with the two other extant versions of the Oath1 noting the similarities and differences. Specifically, the author asks: "does the Acharnae stele reproduce a text that is a substantially accurate transmission of the oath originally formulated and sworn in the summer of 479" (p. 28)? Although Cartledge concedes that there might have been some sort of oath binding the Greeks together, he argues (I think correctly) that it still does not mean the Acharnae stele is an accurate telling of the Oath. Ultimately, he notes that whether the stele is verbally or literally authentic is beside the point; instead, what is important is the function(s) the Oath was meant to serve in its immediate context. Finally, the author concludes this chapter with an attempt to explain the appearance of (and relationship between) the Oath of the Ephebes and Oath of Plataea, both of which are displayed on the Acharnae stele. In short, Cartledge maintains that the introduction of the Ephebia and the Ephebic Oath (instituted by Lycurgus, ca. 330s BCE) were inspired by Spartan practices, and that there is a connection between this stele (which he dates to two or three years after Chaeronea) and the introduction of the formal Ephebate. Thus, having both the Oath of the Ephebes and Oath of Plataea on the same religious stele and adding to the former "a version of the supposedly ancient but in fact much more recently cobbled together Oath of Plataea...would serve both to link present and future with glorious past – and help viewers…to get over the awfulness of the all too recent…debacle at Chaeronea" (p. 40).

Although one can read the Oath of Plataea as Athenian nationalistic propaganda, it is of course, also a religious document, and Chapter 3 (pp. 41-58) examines the Acharnae stele in its proper religious context. In this chapter, Cartledge examines ancient Greek oath-taking (including the Plataea Oath) as essentially religious agreements by stressing the ubiquity of oaths among the ancient Greeks and the role of the gods as both guarantors and punishers of their nonobservance. Moreover, the author looks at cross-cultural comparisons (from Medieval England to modern jihadists) as well as ancient Greek comparanda (e.g., Athenian Assembly, Olympic Oath, etc.) to show the mechanisms and importance of Greek oath-swearing. The chapter concludes with a look at some of the consequences of breaking oaths (including religious pollution, or miasma) as well as a brief history of stasis (civil unrest) in Athens.

Chapter 4 (pp. 59-87) is largely concerned with Herodotus – our main source for the Battle of Plataea – and the history/cultural features of the main protagonists of the Graeco-Persian Wars: Persia (pp. 65-79) and Hellas (pp. 79-87). In providing relevant background information, Cartledge sets the stage for Chapter 5 (pp. 88-121), which deals with the Battle of Plataea itself. This chapter opens with the author repeating how the Battle of Plataea "could almost be called the great unknown battle in one of the great wars of history" (p. 88), providing a number of plausible reasons why it is so often (now as then) overshadowed by Salamis and Thermopylae. The author proceeds to prepare the military scene by providing the historical background, events, and logistics leading up to the battle. While freely admitting "we shall never be able with total confidence to recapture "what actually happened" in the critical months of August-September 479, culminating in the Battle (or battles…) of Plataea" (p. 101), Cartledge proceeds to describe the Battle of Plataea (and Herodotus' version of it) in a very clear and succinct manner.

In many ways, Chapter 6 (pp. 122-161) can be viewed as the bookend to Chapter 2, and it is in this important chapter where Cartledge returns to the larger issue of reception and the Battle of Plataea as historical memory. Intrinsic to the ideological ownership of the battle's memory is the Greek combative/competitive (agonistic) spirit. Regarding commemorative competition, the author first discusses the lesser known Covenant of Plataea (different from the Oath), which is a series of four proposals allegedly agreed upon by the loyalist Greek allies after the Battle of Plataea. 2 Cartledge argues convincingly why he believes the Covenant is not authentic, and why it was probably a later Plataean invention to aid in religious tourism; most significantly, he believes it probably dates to the same time (and shares the same inspiration) as the Oath of Plataea.

The author continues by looking at the specifically Spartan commemorations of the Graeco-Persian Wars as a whole, but also the Battle of Plataea specifically. For example, although the famous Serpent Column at Delphi was a Panhellenic victory monument to celebrate the Panhellenic victory at Plataea, by pointing out that the Spartans were listed first among the participants (and Athenians second, followed by the rest), Cartledge clearly shows how the battle's "memorialization became a focal point of contention among eternally rivalrous Greeks and their cities" (p. 124). In addition to discussing individual poleis, the author also provides a historical summary of the particular contributions of some of the key individuals who participated in the struggle over the memory of Plataea (including the Spartan Regent Pausanias, the poet Simonides, and the historians Herodotus, Thucydides, Ctesias, and Ephorus-Diodorus). Cartledge concludes this chapter (and his overarching argument) by examining Athens in the later fourth century, a time when Athens had lost any semblance of its former glory or power (especially with the rise of Macedon). It is in this context, he maintains, that the "Athenians' recollections of their ancestors' heroic deeds became more and more strident, and more and more "recovered" rather than authentic memories" (p. 154). Using specific examples of Demosthenes and Lysias talking about the glories of Athens during the Graeco-Persian wars, Cartledge concludes that "it is precisely from this quasi-nationalistic strand of Athenian self-justifying, self-magnifying mythopoiesis… that in my view the Plataea Oath as preserved on the Acharnae stele somehow emerged" (p. 155).

In Chapter 7 (pp. 162-167) Cartledge reiterates the book's central themes (e.g., the Battle of Plataea's wider significance in its own and later times; the significance of the inscribed oath of Plataea as a historical source, the authenticity of the oath), before listing (and briefly discussing) some of the contemporary issues to which these larger themes relate, including: cultural wars over the politics of the past; modern war memorials; case study in military history; examples of unjustly forgotten battles; debates on the virtues of national military service; and the role of religion in politics.

In the Preface, the author notes that "this book is addressed to a wide general readership, but yet it has some academic scaffolding and infrastructure too" (p. xiii). Indeed, in this book Cartledge has struck that perfect balance between readability and academic authority that is often difficult to achieve. Moreover, whether referring to the Athenians who died at Marathon as the "magnificent Few" (p. 21) or the "700 magnificent troops" sent by Thespiae (p. 96), the author's passion, respect, and reverence for the subject is unmistakable and shines through consistently throughout the book. Furthermore, Cartledge provides a very clear and concise summary account of the Battle of Plataea itself, while offering insightful and critical thoughts, questions, and ideas to elucidate Herodotus' otherwise notoriously frustrating, "brief and lacunose" (p. 89) description. Indeed, the author makes clear in a few short pages, what others fail to do with twice the space.

There are no significant problems I took issue with in this book, and instead there are only a few minor (perhaps even superficial) points to bring to attention. For example, in his commentary on the Oath's translation from the Acharnae stele, Cartledge maintains that line 39-40 of text: "And if I steadfastly observe the oath, as it has been written" – must refer to the inscription itself, and not to an earlier document. In other words, he believes it is unlikely "to be a reference to the alleged aboriginal oath sworn actually before the Battle of Plataea…since there wouldn't have been the time or probably the material available for anyone to write it down" (p. 25). I find this reasoning questionable. Surely the loyalist Greeks would have had means to write stuff down (communication and dispatches are crucial in any military campaign); and time? The recording of the few sentences that comprise the oath would have been a matter of minutes. The other minor concern I found relates to the Oath as preserved by Lycurgus and Diodorus. 3 Cartledge notes that both literary versions omit the curse at the end found on the Acharnae stele, but that both "add a clause which constrains the oath-takers from rebuilding the sacred buildings destroyed by the "barbarians" (Persians) and binds them to leave the ruins to stand as a permanent memorial" (p. 28). This clause has very important repercussions in the authenticity debate (as Cartledge acknowledges), however, it is a point that is not really addressed further in the book. If the literary depictions of the Oath added this clause, how does one explain away the fact, in Athens for example, that there was a complete absence of construction on the Acropolis for some 40 years after the Persian sack? The author does so by maintaining that "this clause was controverted in practice, admittedly after a considerable interval of time" (p. 28). This of course raises the question: Was this clause controverted or was it actually observed? Truly neither option can be disregarded.

Ultimately, After Thermopylae is completely consistent with the commonsense, well-written, and comprehensive scholarship that we have come to expect from Paul Cartledge. His endeavour has produced a carefully and well-researched book, which stands as an important contribution not only to ancient Greek warfare but also to the larger issues of reception and cultural memory. On several occasions in this book, the author unabashedly admits that there are things we may never know surrounding the important, if often neglected, Battle of Plataea. Nonetheless, Cartledge continues to ask the important questions and provide reasonable hypotheses. This is one of the most important things that I took away from this excellent book, and I am certain I will have these questions in mind next time I teach the Battle of Plataea in my Ancient Greek Warfare class.


1.   The two surviving literary descriptions of the Oath of Plataea can be found in Lyc. 1 81 and the later version is found in Diod. 11.29.2-3.
2.   The source is Plut. Arist. 21.
3.   See note 1.

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